Monday, 9 October 2017

50 modern comics [part 1]

I've been compiling this list on Patreon, with the idea being to collate group of more modern, printed works beyond the superhero genre that's hopefully accessible to anyone interested in comics, irrespective of foreknowledge. It's not exhaustive by any means -for example, the whole landscape of self-published mini-comics and webcomics where so much recent and excellent work is done isn't represented- but I hope it's still useful. I'm continuing to add to the list with daily entries on Patreon, and once there's enough titles to make-up a part 2, I'll publish that here, also.

Age of Reptiles by Ricardo Delgado: One of the ultimate tests of an artists is how well they can draw a dinosaur, and Ricardo Delgado is someone you'd trust to draw dinosaurs for your life (should such a situation ever arise). Age of Reptiles is a wordless, prehistoric comic following various groups of dinosaurs back when people were a still a twinkle in the eye of evolution. It may sound straightforward, and it is: stolen eggs,hunting strategies, craftily laid traps, brutality of loss, systems of power and reliance, territory battles -and no dino story is complete without raptors being conniving little shits- are all woven into Delgado's compelling drama. It's so impressive, you almost forget how difficult it actually is to create something of this scale, to convey it on the page with a degree of belivability. Delgado is a superior draughtsman; the detail his fine lines conjure, coupled with a stunning use of colour all work to makes Age of Reptiles a uniquely special work.

Mazeworld by Arthur Ranson and Alan Grant: The first man to be hanged after British parliament's reinstatement of the death penalty, Adam Cadman finds it's not death, but a strange world with beasts and warriors waiting for him at the end of the hangman's noose. As he tries to ascertain whether he's alive, dead, or somewhere in between, the residents of Mazeworld are convinced he's the 'hooded man' spoken of in their prophecies. From detail to tone, overlooked comics-master Arthur Ranson's art does all the work in convincingly bringing Mazeworld to life, his realistic style grounding fantastical elements, and giving body to darker aspects of the story. Surreal imaginings, covert organisations, one man up against everything and yet not sure quite what: at its best 'Mazeworld' compares to the bizarre menace of 'The Prisoner' -and that's one of the highest compliments I can give.

Beautiful Darkness by Kerascoet and Fabien Vehlmann: Gory, insidious, discomforting: 'Beautiful Darkness' follows a group of tiny Borrower-esqe people as they attempt to survive in the woods with winter drawing in. Near by, the dead body of a young human girl lies decomposing... This small band of people and their community provide 'Beautiful Darkness' a lens through which to examine social constructs and roles, the effect of their upholding and disintegration, and the dangers of idealism. An astonishing, unblinking work, it's beautifully painted by Kerascoët, whose superficially appealing style blindsides the reader into confronting the juxtapositions between image and reality, nature and conformity. A modern classic.

Birth of a Nation by Kyle Baker, Aaron McGruder, and Reginald Hudlin: Taking the events of the 2000 US election as a springboard, 'Birth of a Nation' imagines the largely African-American population of a disenfranchised and disrespected East St. Louis seceding to declare itself the sovereign Republic of Blackland. Hope and ideals prove a tricky thing to shape into workable tangibility, with the journey to independence littered with compromise, interference from outside and within, an impatient constituency, and people out for themselves. Kyle Baker's cartooning carries both depth and irreverence, delivering pathos and absurdity in full measure. A hilarious, biting political satire, the intricacies of which remain pithily relevant today.

Aya by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie: Collected in 2 pleasingly hefty volumes, 'Aya: Life in Yop City,' and 'Aya: 'Love in Yop City,' Marguerite Abouet's bildungsroman of a young woman's life in 1970's Ivory Coast is delightful; rich in detail, warm in tone, and lovely to look at. Clemet Oubrerie's expressive art deftly brings to life both a range of strong personalities and the at turns bustling, at turns laconic nature of the Ivory Coast itself. What's most satisfying about Aya is the real and natural progression of characters as they grow to face more adult concerns. It's rare to see such a truly encompassing, fleshed-out work in comics, where each part of a character's life, their relationships, hopes and dreams, are thoroughly addressed.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll: One of the first names that pops into mind when discussing contemporary horror comics, perhaps nobody is as effective in slowly conjuring up dread as Emily Carroll. Her eerily atmospheric tales combine the transcendent and  sub-conscious with elements of folk and fairytale, all the while remaining grounded in the sinew of human impulse and emotion. Curiously attuned to people's fears, Carroll open use of page layout allows her to slide into the questioning, murky areas of the reader's brain to simmer and suggest. But it's her ability to weave strong narratives with uniquely evocative images to create genuinely unsettling, creepy comics, that easily put her at the forefront of the genre.

Aama by Frederik Peeters: Largely unheralded upon translation, Frederik Peeters' Aama is nevertheless an unequivocal modern sci-fi great, not least because it features a cigar-smoking chimp-android named Churchill. Peeters delves into the idea of humanity's future lying in an evolutionary amalgamation of the natural and technological worlds, as 2 estranged brothers are thrust together to track down an AWOL sentient bio-robotic science experiment. Peeters' gorgeous artwork rises lushly to the task of realising vivid imagined concepts to the page: lurid jungles of flora; sharp, metallic-cluster space vehicles; fractured mindscapes, and gloriously weird creatures.

Ordinary Victories by Manu Larcenet: The sole Manu Larcenet work to be published in English, 'Ordinary Victories' is a magnificent diptych following the life of photographer, Marco, which, on the surface, follows a recognisable narrative path: man stagnating with career and relationships attempts to break out of rut. Yet Larcenet is too good a writer to not offer something better; more nuanced. He shows the knots and flaws of Marco's character as exactly such, displaying the ways in which they both impact his life as well as those around him- and unlike many male-crisis portrayals Marco faces his shortcomings, undergoing emotional growth. Larcenet's cartooning is marked by an open empathy, as Marco navigates anxiety attacks and the loss of his father whilst coming to terms with having a child of his own. As banal, complex, and moving as life itself.

Cul de Sac by Richard Thompson: Serialised in The Washington Post in the noughties, Richard Thompson's Cul De Sac is arguably the last great newspaper strip, and unarguably a wonderful, towering achievement. What makes the brief sojourns into the life of Alice and her family and friends exceptionally singular is the sheer room Thompson is able to lend to an array of ongoing narrative elements. Thompson is impressively effective in quickly imbuing traits and tones he wants conveyed. From Petey's shoe-box dioramas to Mr Otterloop's car, Dill's brothers to Alice's manhole dancing, the uh-oh baby to Tommy Fretwork and his banjo, each is sewn seamlessly into the tapestry of the strip, made significant no matter how brief the appearance. Fine, spidery lines combined with sketchily hatched textures further provide the cartooning with a quirky, expressive charm. Every aspect of Cul de Sac is immensely appreciable in its own standing. An objectively superlative work. 

Safari Honeymoon by Jesse Jacobs: Jacobs' tale of a newlywed couple eager to take in the sights and experiences of their first class safari holiday weaves man's separation, distrust, and exerted dominance over nature with slyly absurd humour and invasive body horror. The brash, misplaced confidence of the humans clashes with the unaware, seemingly naive jungle beings. Drawn with mitochondrial intricacy, Jacobs' style is exceptionally suited to Safari Honeymoon's thematic leanings: appropriately lush with dizzying detailed sequences, and yet with a quality of inscrutability that belies intent. 

Sock Monkey Treasury by Tony Millionaire: There's no need for subversion when the fertile fields of children's literature provide a rich tradition for the strange and off-kilter. It's this tradition that Tony Millionaire deliberately -and so effectively- taps into with Sock Monkey, a beautifully stylised compendium of stories following the adventures of the titular cloth primate, a stuffed, manic crow, and Inches, a porcelain doll. From being captivated by a rainbow-light-reflecting glass doorknob, to experiencing guilt and self-loathing over the accidental killing of a baby bird, to brutal, epic character journeys, Sock Monkey finds its complex, not always likeable cast display their sentience in a myriad of very human ways. Weird, brilliant, and always engrossing.

Literary Life by Posy Simmonds: Undoubtedly one of Britain's finest cartoonists, Posy Simmonds has authored a number of favourites for young and old, from 'Mrs Weber's Diary' to 'Baker Cat,' to 'Tamara Drewe' and 'Fred.' Yet perhaps nowhere do her qualities of observational touch and sharp wit combine to better effect than in 'Literary Life.' Serialised as a Saturday strip in the Guardian's Review section, she deftly dissects the pretensions of the literary world, taking on the egos of male authors, reading group politics, booksellers' burdens, children's literature, and more. Simmonds' cartooning is always a joy to behold; her lines carry such humour and affability, working in stylishly appealing tandem with her more scathing satire.

Helter Skelter by Kyoko Okazaki: You'll be hard-pressed to find a more cutting critique of the intense social regimenting of women's appearances than Okazaki's tale of a super-model prepared to go to the most extreme lengths to preserve her success. Sharp, angular lines acutely parallel themes of beauty and pain.

Courtney Crumrin by Ted Naifeh: What makes Courtney Crumrin stand out amongst the magical teen genre is the successful, layered portrayal of its protagonist. Dragged to a new suburb and a new school by her indifferent parents, Courtney's prickly personality is informed by their neglect, and the ostracisation of her peers, resulting in an impatient, defensive, temperament that anchors and drives Ted Naifeh's 7-volume series. Naifeh's supernatural, spooky shenanigans are given an extra depth by virtue of being firmly informed by the depiction and journey of its central character; as Courtney discovers there may be a sliver of a silver lining to moving homes in the form of her mysterious Great Uncle Aloysius and  the Crumrin legacy.

The Absence by Martin Stiff: One of the most memorable British comics in recent times, Martin Stiff's story of a man who returns to his small coastal village in England after the second world war is an exercise in building suspense. Presumed dead, Marwood Clay is the lone solider from his town to make the trip home, now horribly disfigured and strangely hated and shunned by all. But Marwood's pariah-hood extends beyond a resentful discomfort of his survival, to events that took place before he left and changes that have occurred since. Taut and intriguing, Stiff maintains a grip on the attention throughout, the starkness of his black and white art creating a implacable atmosphere that gives little away.

Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa: A true gem of a book, 'Three Shadows' is a hugely emotive tale; a windswept treatise on loss and fate sublimely rendered by Pedrosa. Three ominous shadows appear suddenly on the horizon outside Louis and Lise's woodland house, drawing closer each day. As Louis and Lise's anxiety increases in proximity to the foreboding visitors, it becomes clear the shadows are here to take their young son- and that nothing will stand in their way. But an angry, scared Louis will not let his son go without a fight, leaving behind Lise to embark on an epic journey to save him. Pedrosa's loose, sweeping art defines this beautiful work; soft charcoals and deep inks acutely expressing each heartfelt beat.

We3 by Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison: Part of a government experiment, Cat, Dog, and Rabbit are house pets who have been augmented with cyborg-esqe shells and weaponary. But they are just the program's prototypes, and with testing complete, the semi-sentient animals are now marked for permanent decommissioning. Desperate to live free, they seize an opportunity to escape, to preserve their family and search for "home" away from the clutches of the shadowy agency that created them. Quitely goes to town on the spectacular visuals depicting an evocative maelstrom of violence, panic, and pain in this gut-wrenching tale.

Yotsuba &! by Kiyohiko Azuma: Funny, warm, and off-beat, Yotsuaba & ! follows the everyday adventures of a 5-year old, green-haired girl who lives with her single father. The cast of the comic is bolstered mainly by the three daughters of the family next door with whom she spends a lot of time, and also by Yotsuba's dad's friends: the very tall and aptly-nicknamed Jumbo, and Yostuba's mortal enemy, the younger Yanda. There are many 'slice-of-life' mangas, Azuma's Yotsuba as truly special. It's one of those very few comics where the tone, pitch, characters, pacing, writing, and cartooning all coalesce into a reading experience that's so completely fluid and natural that it's unassailable. To make the mundane interesting is a tough task; to make it immersive and joyful, yet still believable is masterful.

The Walking Man by Jiro Taniguchi: Adhering to the Ronseal ethos of 'does what it says on the tin,' The Walking Man does indeed feature a man walking. The reader joins Taniguchi's nameless protagonist as he takes respite in journeying around his town on foot. In following the man, we're forced to match him for pace, to stop when he does, to take in what he sees, the way he sees it; to appreciate things such as a jar of flowers left on the pavement, ducks gathered in a pond, getting caught in a sudden soft snowfall, impulsively buying a balloon from the market and blowing it up right there. There are few who exemplify contained elegance better, and Taniguchi's clear, precise style details the minutiae of environment thoroughly. Beautifully, quietly affirming.

Godzilla: the half century war by James Stokoe: You don't have to know anything about the God of Monsters to know the unadulterated excellence of James Stokoe's standalone miniseries. Framed around the life of Ota Murakami, a 20-something soldier who's on the scene when Godzilla first makes himself known to the world, Stokoe's narrative transposes the lifetime of one man against the uncaring, unchangeable force of a god-like beast. Stokoe's application of acidic gradiented colours can take adjustment but his staggeringly stunning, hyper-detailed art is a perfectly-tailored fit to the beauty, savagery and scale at hand. No-one is better suited to deliver the spectacle of huge monsters roaming the Earth: to actually make you feel the terror and wonder of amazing, ferocious creatures doing battle. 

Cradlegrave by John Smith and Edmund Bagwell: Released from a prison stint for his pyromaniac tendencies, Shane returns home to life on a working class estate to find little has changed. Straining between a sense of loyalty and obligation to his friends and family and the desperate need to leave, his decision is put on hold as he's drawn in to the strange going ons in the home of his elderly neighbours, Ted and Mary. Cradlegrave acutely captures the grim hopelessness of the working class young, trapped in an unceasing cycle of quiet despair, marrying it with a perverse, fetid horror which you'll struggle to shake off.

Monster by Naoki Urasawa: Unsurpassed in creating intelligent, emotional, entertaining comics, Naoki Urasawa puts his talents once more to the task in Monster,  the story of Dr. Kenzō Tenma, a brilliant young surgeon who saves the life of a young boy in his emergency operating theatre, only to realise years later that he may be the perpetrator of a series of murders taking place. Where Urasawa truly excels is his understanding of people: in writing character and the interplay of human behaviour. No-one is able to introduce minor characters and arcs within a story and make them as nuanced, impactful and as satisfying as he, a facet that the psychologies of Monster provide fertile ground for. 

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton: Responsible for propagating a whole sub-culture and the rise of many a meme, Kate Beaton's witty comics featuring literary, historical, and feminist figures; a dollop of artistic license, and expressive cartooning have become so widespread and instantly familiar that they've grown to a life beyond both comics and Beaton. It's easy to see why. The snarky yet affectionate examinations of what is considered Western cultural canon have an accessible appeal, and Beaton has a keen turn of phrase, condensing and dispersing information with effective charm.

Boundless by Jillian Tamaki: Although only published earlier in 2017, Boundless is a collection of Tamaki comics published through various outlets over the last few years that gives evidence to the breadth of her capability. That Tamaki is a superb artist with sublime draughtsmanship is well known from her award-winning collaborative works with cousin Mariko Tamaki: Skim, This One Summer. She's also a vitally interesting cartoonist in her own right, chronicling modern life and a generation of 'millenial' adults in an astute, questioning manner that will probably be only fully appreciated when history looks back.

Hardboiled by Geof Darrow and Frank Miller: The machines rise up, or try to, in Frank Miller's and Geof Darrow's violent cybernetic version of the Truman Show. Carl Seltz is a suburban insurance investigator, a loving husband, and devoted father. But he's also Unit Four, a robot killing machine upon whom the hopes of mankind's enslaved mechanical race rest. Which identity will Carl choose? Darrow's glorious heat-filled pages teem with life, as copious amounts of brand names- Snickers, McDonald's, Coca Cola- flash throughout, maintaining a non-strop stream of engorged consumption. A tale of imposed conformity and the consequences of realising you might be more.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Friday Snow Day

Pierre Wazem's and Antoin Aubin's Snow Day is a small, interesting comic. A quiet, corrupt town. A sheriff tired of looking the other way. And snow. Interminable snow.

The specifics are not clarified, but the broadstrokes suggest that the constant harsh weather coupled with the isolated location of the town mean its residents are dependent on the income and business provided by Mr Ross' factory. Conditions, 'accidents,' assault, are all overlooked to ensure the factory is kept running. Until one day, Spencer, the sheriff appointed by the dodgy mayor as a glorified babysitter, decides he's had enough. All this is in the background, a tropey-framework to get the reader there, if you will. Snow Day opens with an incident already having occurred, and Spencer dealing with the fallout of his decision, butting heads with the town's forces. 

The thing that appealed to most about Snow Day is its scope. It's not about winning or losing, taking the bad guy down but about a moment in which a man tires of not being able to respect himself anymore. One man who thinks himself of as good, as doing the right thing, having the right values, and yet somehow finds himself resigned, downtrodden, actively complicit. Spencer is uncomfortable with himself. With how easily he has become comfortable with what goes on around him; how easily he has become comfortable in his own lack of response and acceptance of 'the way things are.' There's a selfishness in his sudden need to reclaim who he is, almost, but the good kind.

I like, too, that Spencer's intervention isn't presented as ultimate, even as he feels temporary satisfaction in having finally shown some spine. It's not endgame. It's one thing he did this one day. Any repercussions, any effect it may have, any possibility for change is left up in the air. That we don't get to see. But we do get to see people ground down by resentment from being exploited by those more powerful combined with the resentment of disliking themselves for not having the courage to do anything about it. That's a nook from which circumstances rarely alter.

43 of Snow Day's 112 pages are silent. Aubin uses passages of 4-6 pages here and there to give a sense of place, to set a scene, to imbue contemplation, frustration, deliberation. It's Aubin who imbues life, measure, stillness. His black and white inks serve to highlight the bleak, beautiful nature of the town, moving from stark and fine, to dense and gnarly. The manner in which he's able to render both cold and warmth with his lines and brushes is pretty special. There's a flashback sequence in which a man narrates the instigating incident to Spencer's ex-girlfriend, charmingly done in a naive-style pen scrawl that serves as his inebriated recollection of events.

Snow Day is an entertaining book, lovely to look at, which leaves you with thinking a little.

*This piece was originally written for my August 1-hour writing challenge on Patreon

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Snapshot thoughts: 'You & A Bike & A Road' by Eleanor Davis

So, today I have an hour to tell you my thoughts on Eleanor Davis' You & A Bike & A Road.' Here's what I want you to know:

1) This book is about a solo bike journey Davis undertook from her parents home in Tuscon, Arizona to her own home in Athens, Georgia in 2016. There are a slew of reasons for setting out on the bike trip: it's something she wants to do, and she and her husband have been thinking of starting a family soon so now seems like an opportune time, but also her mental health is at a low ebb and the bike provides a release of sorts. On the bike she feels okay.

2) I read this while in hospital, lying down on a sofa in my dressing gown whiling away the 7-hour pre-surgery wait time. I once said on a panel that my mood affects how I experience a book (which I think people found a bit odd) but it's something I stand by. It makes sense that where you're at -mentally and physically- has on impact on the way you interact with things. Hospitals are one of those liminal, strange places where reality seems thinner, and that, combined with my nerves and apprehension made me open to the book in a specific way. Particularly as much of it is about the limits of the body; the tension between the mind and matter. Yet I found it affirming. I was comforted in sharing the experiences of someone else who was struggling. 

3) Davis' cartooning is incredibly good. Writing about her previously, I've called it 'natural' 'organic' 'flowing.' Fundamentally, it comes across as effortless. I don't mean that there isn't work involved, but even here, where you can see rubbings and drawn over lines (Davis created these comics on the go), it seems seamless in how it's put together.  There's an ease to it. It's as if she thinks in cartoon form and then that's what comes out of her pen. Some people speak a language more fluently than others. Davis is at the level where she's so good you can't tell if it's her native tongue. What I am most impressed by is her ability to succinctly convey exactly what she wants. Nothing extra. What she wants to say, what she wants to show you, is there on the page. I envy that coherence. To be able to not only express yourself, but to do so whilst being engaging, intelligent, and thoughtful is special.

4) I relate to the notion of motion keeping your monsters at bay. Move, move, move, and they can't getcha. Doing requires all your focus.

5) I like the full-page crowd scenes a lot. The smudgy closeness of a pencil is the best at bringing the reader into an image. The bustling way in which Davis fills a page is deeply appealing. There's a real geniality to this book, to the cartooning; to Davis' voice and her questioning. 

6) One of the aspects that resonated deeply with me was the idea of failure, or giving up. We're taught to continue, to persevere. Seeing things through as a test -and testament- of character. No matter if it's at's the expense of your health. No matter the strain or toll. When something is at the point of causing you greater harm than it is benefit, it is okay to stop. It is okay to stop for as little a reason because you want to stop. Davis does not complete her bike journey: her knees, fragile and flaring up throughout, can't take anymore. She doesn't want to cause her body damage for the sake of completing an arbitrary goal, instead choosing to reflect on all she has achieved, on what she's gained. 

7) At various points in her journey, Davis is helped by complete strangers who allow her to stay at their home -sometimes for days on end- help fix her bike, give her advice, words of encouragement. 'Meet some strangers. Get to know them and they get to know you. Now they are your people.' I'm struck by this. These parts of the story are what seem most fictional to me. I know, as brown, visibly Muslim woman, navigating life in a 'western' country, this could never be my experience. I am struck by how something as simple as a bike trek can offer 2 human beings such varying possibilities. Weird to consider that the best of what people have to offer is closed off to you by their worst. What it would be like to move through the world free of larger preconceptions and prejudice.

8) This book was one of the best things I've read this year.

*This piece was originally written for my August 1-hour writing challenge on Patreon

Friday, 25 August 2017

Let's talk about book spine design!

Good morning! Today I want to briefly discuss some examples of good and poor book design, specifically focusing on book spines.

Book spines! Book spines are important because they do the job of a cover where a cover isn't visible. All books can't be placed face up. There's simply not enough space. And so it falls to the book spine to represent the book, to give it individuality amongst a sea of others on a bookshelf. At its most basic its function is to stand out, to catch the eye. A good book spine should give the reader some inclination as to the character of the book. A spine is potentially the first and only part of a book a reader will encounter.

We can say covers and spines do not matter as much when foreknowledge is present. You've read about a book, your favourite author has a new release, you've been recommended a title by your friend - you know what you want. But when I go into a bookshop I'm not there solely to pick up what I'm already aware of, but to discover new things. That involves browsing, looking at covers, reading blurbs, flicking through to see interior art. In comics, there is vast potential for spines; with pages and pages of art to help illustrate them, images ready to snipped and grabbed, ready-made colour schemes to draw from, all of which can be used to put together a sharp, attractive spine. But spine design (and book design in general) remains a vastly neglected area in comics. Part of this is due to a push-back mentality against 'selling.' The idea that the work should magically stand for (and sell) itself. That marketing and packaging is a gimmick to which one shouldn't lower themselves. Personally, I think it's a disservice to your work if you don't give every aspect of it equal care and consideration. Some of it is also laziness, and some of it is, as ever, down to financial constraints. Perhaps, too, book design has become somewhat of a neglected area as online and digital sales have flourished and print floundered. I understand, yes, but also these are excuses.

Anyway, let's cast about my shelves and discuss some good and bad examples of spine design.

I love how cohesive and punchy these Parasyte spines are. There's a lot of elements at work here and yet the spine doesn't look busy or overly crammed, largely thanks to the black which both breaks up the coloured facets and grounds the whole spine. Let's breakdown the 4 main features that make this such an excellent spine:
  1. the title itself- or the font: it's unique, not simply a standard typeface but one created to tie in with what the book is about. The uneven letters and scratchy bits give it a visual interest of its own.
  2. the colours: the full set of books looks impressive, but each volume has it's own vibrant shade. They are not dull. What's interesting about the  Parasyte spine is that it has clear sections, blocked against the black background, the contrast of which makes the colours pop more.
  3. layout/design/spacing: this is the 'sectioning' I was referring to. There's the half oblong on top, the image, the title, vol number, author name, and a second half-oblong containing the publisher logo. All are balanced beautifully. That's a lot of information but it's clearly laid out in a way that looks good and also tells the reader something about the feel of this book.
  4. the image: Parasyte contains some incredibly strong, arresting art, and it seems common sense to put some of that on the spine. The weirdness of Hitoshi Iwaaki's drawings are a benefit, using the visceral liet motif of eyes to great effect. A head bulging with numerous eyes; eyes peering out from an outstretched hand; a misshapen, looping face that is all eyeball. How can you not be drawn to it?
A mention for Gon here, which has a solid, effective spine format. The earthy colour scheme fits in with the natural/prehistoric theme. The 'O' in the tile is neatly punctuated with Gon's footprint, the kind of small detail that makes a difference. Lastly, the colour images pull the whole thing together. Although this is a more 'open' design than the Parasyte spines, you can see there's still a clear approach to layout, which is stuck to throughout: publisher logo, image excerpt, title, volume number, author name.

Many manga often have the lead character/s feature on the spine, from floating heads, upper body shots to full body drawings.  These Cross Game spines utilise colour nicely, with the lively green/orange theme played out not only across the whole set but on each book. Again, the title is stylised and includes a four-leaf clover, and Mitsuru Adachi's superb illustrations decorate the bottom. Cross Game is very much a character piece and that's something you can quickly glean from looking at these people. The illustrations here are doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

This Azumanga Daioh omnibus is one of my absolute favourites. The cover is a wraparound, with the cast of characters walking along together from back cover to spine to front cover. Placement is key, so that it's spread in a way that those 3 still work if viewed separately. The spine gives you a full look at 2 of the characters, both with differing expressions. If we're talking about what we can tell from a spine, here we can tell this is about school girls (the uniform) contrasting personalities, and friendship. I love, too, that the title is placed in a little 'speech' balloon at the top. It's not a big balloon, but being at the top (and being the only text) helps.

Yotsuba's spines are good because of Youstuba! She's there on every one. A small, but complete presence, always engaged in some activity or mood which is relayed to the reader. I like how cleverly the exclamation mark (Yotusba's full title is 'Yotsuba & !') is incorporated into the title design here, with the volume number in the dot, and how Kiyohiko Azuma's name is similarly bubbled off. Bubbling can make busier spines appear less so. The whole spine here is very clean, more so with the green and maroon juxtaposed against the white background.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Fish Girl: presenting clarity in narratives of abuse

David Weisner's and Donna Jo Napoli's Fish Girl is a book that took me by surprise recently. I bought it as a fan of Weisner's excellent picture books, excited by the prospect of him working on a longer-length comic. What I knew of it was gleaned from the publishers' brief synopsis: a young mermaid in a seaside attraction befriends a human girl and longs to have the same freedom. Yet Fish Girl is a much sharper, more thoughtful book than that blurb would have you believe. It is a story of abuse, power dynamics, and control.

Kept in a seaside house of attractions, Fish Girl looks up to and loves the man she knows as 'Neptune'. The whole house is rigged up as a gigantic aquarium and it's Fish Girl's job to swim around amongst the other creatures and foliage providing the paying visitors only enough glimpses so as to keep her existence both viable and contentious. Neptune puts on shows for his customers in which he regales them with tales of the sea, as water rises and moves at the behest of his sceptre. He refers to the house as his kingdom and Fish Girl as his treasure. Making herself known to anyone would put her in great danger, warns Neptune, leading to experiments, dissection, and worst of all- separation. Fish Girl believes him. She believes him to be king.

What I appreciated most about the book was its clarity. It doesn't mince language or themes, a facet that's doubly important when taking into consideration the young audience this is aimed at. It's not an allegory but a straightforward presentation of an abusive relationship. Using the lens of a mermaid who sheds the constrictive identity (quite literally 'special' by being a fantastical creature) placed upon her, who breaks free from her scales, growing legs and learning to walk and stand doesn't water down that portrayal. The man who calls himself Neptune sees Fish Girl as his property, something he owns, 'You are mine. My treasure. I'm the one who cares for you.' He simultaneously demeans and diminishes her: 'they'll [other people] be repulsed by you,' and then frames himself as the good guy, the sole person willing to care, the only one who sees how special she is, 'you're nothing like them.' Through controlling how she feels about herself, he controls her. He manipulates her emotions, peddling a you-and-me-against-the-world-narrative 'we belong together,' telling her her survival depends on him. Why wouldn't Fish Girl, who has been with him since she was a baby, who doesn't even know what 'the world' looks like, has known nothing beyond the walls of the aquarium, trust him?

But one day, a human girl catches Fish Girl unaware as she's lost in thought and talks to her. Although Fish Girl is voiceless, the two are able to communicate and strike up a secret friendship that leads her to question much of what she thought to be true. This girl, the first human she's interacted with besides Neptune and she is perfectly nice. If he was lying about the nature of people, what else was he lying about? She begins to become aware of the physical and mental confines in which she's caged: 'My air. My food. He controls my world.' 'When he's happy, he leaves me alone.' She determines to learn more. Napoli and Weisner remain firmly, remarkably rooted throughout: even when Fish Girl makes her way into the human world one night, she is not safe from the exploitative overtures of men. The ultimate line is that she have the freedom and agency to choose how she wants to live, what she wants to do, and who she wants to be. That she be in control of herself.

Weisner's art tends to have this rather static quality to it that serves the generally surreal direction of his work well. The distilling of movement forces you to spend time looking. Here, it's a steady, unwavering hand giving the reader an unblinking lucidity, the tone of which never gets frantic. It works well, too, in a sense of containment, of slow introspection the pace of which he's able to dictate via panelling choices as the story crescendos and concludes. 

*This piece was originally written for my August 1-hour writing challenge on Patreon

Monday, 21 August 2017

10,000 Years In Hell: Tillieux's ode to joy

A quiet Sunday afternoon at the Akhtar household yesterday, with me reading Maurice Tillieux's 10,000 Years in Hell on one sofa, while my nephews (respective ages 7 and 5) watched Planet Hulk on another. A notable day if only for it being the occasion on which they became aware of the existence of Beta Ray Bill. 'Beta. Ray. Bill.' breathed the older one as if familiarising himself with a rosary prayer. But there was no less excitement on the other end of the room. I've been waiting for this book to come out for a long time and it was worth the wait. You know when something is so good you sit there squirming in delight, revelling in each moment? Your shoulders go up, your neck goes in, sometimes there's little indiscernible noises of pleasure. There was definite twitching.

Part of that appreciation is cognitive: things you're exposed to, and enjoy, during formative periods in your life have a long-lasting impact on the evolution of your taste. I loved detective/adventure/mystery stories when I was a kid: Tintin, The Hardy Boys, The Famous Five, etc., and crime remains the fulcrum of my prose reading today. I'm pretty sure my preferences of certain shades can be traced back to Herge's colour palette. I'd like to think I'd be as open to ligne claire and atomic style bande dessinees if I hadn't read Tintin and Asterix but who knows. Art is a language and parsing what you're not used to can be a difficult process.

Tillieux's Gil Jordan often gets tagged with the 'grown up Tintin' label, but Tintin -age *14* lest we forget, owner of an impenetrable skull, piloter of planes, boats, and submarines, master of firearms- is obviously a superhero. The similarities lie in the sharing of (apparent) genre, the fact that both our heroes are ginger, and superficial allusions to the 'look' of the art/ However, Tillieux's 'atomic' style is an advancement of Herge's more classic clear lines. There's more brushwork, more texture. Lines are allowed to be looser, sketchier. Shapes have body. It has sinew, it's alive.

Straightaway, on page 1, there's a mysterious letter complete with secret coding device (known only to the recipient) used to uncover a hidden message. Page 1! I get such a kick out of these things.

There are 2 stories in this volume: 10,000 Years In Hell, about an inventor who gets kidnapped by the government of a small South American country for his weapon designs, and Boom and Bust which sees a retired colonel as the target of an increasingly threatening letter campaign. On the one hand, Tillieux's stories are straightforward with little twists or surprises. But narrative is more than plot. Narrative is everything. In comics, narrative is lines, layout, expressions, colours, ideas, scenes, emotions- everything that has the ability to convey something. And make no mistake, Tillieux is a master of all these.

Take the above scene. It could easily be a few panels of Tony in the booth talking on the phone, possibly interspersed with panels of the person on the other end. Instead Tillieux gives us that much more: a panel of the bar, the arcade game, men drinking, building atmosphere. And in choosing to stay on Tony, he adds tiny bits of characterisation: Tony's free hand does 3 different things in this sequence, neatly folding itself in a pocket, smoking a cigarette, and doodling a gun while chatting.

Here's another simple yet effective device. A regular-sized panel shows Gil and Crackerjack hitting the road. Next to it, Tillieux places 4 small, split panels of town signs, equal to the size of the first, to show the progression of their journey. This literally drives the action forward, allowing him to move both his characters physically from place to place and also move on to the next bit in the story.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Shiva: to protect or destroy?

Siuil, a Run: The Girl from the Other Side by Nagabe [Seven Seas]
Shiva is a young girl living in an abandoned, woodland village in this opening volume of Nagabe's masterfully paced folk-fantasy. Her sole companion is a tall, black, meticulously-dressed creature, whom she addresses as 'teacher,' and who serves as Shiva's guardian. Semi-humanoid in shape, with a head that is a cross between bird and ram, a beak that is not a beak; long, curling elegant horns, fur, and a tail, Teacher and Shiva are close (despite their coming together indicated to have been a fairly recent turn of events), each unperturbed by the other. Due to unspecified reasons, the two are forbidden to touch. Shiva appears unaware of much, apart from that used to have an aunt, whose fate is unclear, and whose return she eagerly awaits although Teacher knows such a turn of events is unlikely...

More is learnt of this curious situation via Teacher's thoughts, and the conversations of a group of soldiers patrolling the woods. It seems a curse or disease of some kind has ravaged the land. Areas have been divided into safe and no-go zones: the inside and the outside. The curse changes people, a physical transformation, and those changed become 'outsiders' who are hunted down and killed -purportedly to stop the spread of the disease. Fear rules rampant as soldiers slaughter anyone even suspected of carrying the curse. This, then, is why the village is empty. Those who are not dead have fled. Yet these nuggets of information are slippery, one-sided, and not expansive enough to provide answers. How did the curse come about? If Shiva is a carrier, why does Teacher -an apparent outsider- strictly enforce the 'no contact' rule? What kind of powers do the outsiders have? Who are they? Can they truly transform others by a simple touch? What is it the king and his soldiers are really afraid of? These questions aren't frustrating, but a result of Nagabe successfully siphoning story to sow intrigue and investment.

While the odd-couple pairing of the inky, imposing, nightmare-fodder figure and young, innocent child may be what catches the superficial eye, Nagabe demonstrates a deft touch in characterisation, rooting it in activity, situation, and the interpersonal. We spend time with Shiva and Teacher both separately and together, becoming familiar with each as individuals, and of their relationship. With no physical contact allowed, Nagabe shows the two's closeness via gestures, actions: Shiva making a crown of flowers for Teacher and placing it carefully on their head. Holding either side of an old umbrella for support when Shiva is hurt, Teacher unable to carry her. There's a quiet, gentle ambience enhanced by the woodland setting, and the isolation of the characters, although this sense of tranquility seems false, destined to not last. Nagabe's fine lines amplify that feeling, treading delicate, sharp, ominous. Sparser pages give way to sudden fuller, detailed backgrounds with brushier inks, at times an uneven note in the book, possibly borne from the constraints of serialisation, but also offering a heightened contrast, specifically in employing blank space as a conduit for drama and tension.

One of the most fulfilling aspects of Siuil is this conveyance of comics as language, of words and pictures as unified text. Take, for example, the 3 pages below. Nagabe splits the pages into 2 large panels to slow down time, and to emphasise the pivotal nature of what we're seeing: both the soldier drawing the arrow, lining it up, and Shiva's reaction. The panels are sparse with no background- full focus is on the figures. The additional texture on the arrowhead from an angle where it's in the reader's face makes it all the more real, more dramatic.

Panels and sequences are utilised like this thoroughly: a splash page filled with the close-up of a single, shocked eye and the catalytic reflected image. A tight, close-up in which Teacher's hand clutches silently at grass and flowers in pain, followed by a 3-panel sequence of Shiva reaching out a comforting hand, hesitating, and then drawing back. A split-panel of Teacher's head indicates a momentary 'in two minds' indecision over whether to tell Shiva the truth about her auntie. Shadows of soldiers helmets fall so that their eyes are rarely visible, indicating a blind following and a lack of humanity. Even something such as size difference is used to communicate narrative, Nagabe contrasting the safe, comfortable interactions of Shiva and Teacher's (crouching, reaching with a stool) with the looming, elongated body language of the soldiers from the perspective of a fallen Shiva as they tower over her. 

It's been a while since I loved a book as unequivocally as I loved The Girl from the Other Side, and I'm eager to see where it goes next.

*This piece was originally written for my August 1-hour writing challenge on Patreon

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Drawing All-Might

I started watching the My Hero Academia anime, swayed by the impassioned behest of my friend, Jamila. To cut a long story short (and brevity is one of the aims of this writing exercise), after a slow couple of opening episodes, I was hooked and whistled my way through the rest of the 2 series. I liked it a lot. Enough that the lure of pages from the comic from which it's adapted floating across my virtual path proved too strong to resist. What I want to discuss a little today is an aspect of that comic, namely the manner in which Kohei Horikoshi draws one of his main characters, All-Might, the number 1 superhero in the world. The following observations and analysis are based upon reading books 1 and 2 of the manga.

Here's All-MIght in hero form (sans costume):

And here's All-Might in regular form:

A side-by-side look at the transition:

When he's in hero form, All Might is depicted almost as a caricature of a typical superhero. Kohei Horikoshi's lines become thicker, bolder. Increased, heavier texture and hatching are used to render his bulging physique. That exaggeration makes his presence undeniable. He's *there.* There's no missing him. Part of this stylistic choice is in keeping with the inherent humour of My Hero Academia but on a base level, it works simply to distinguish him from everyone else. In a world in which 80% of the population has some sort of special power, and superheroes are a norm, there has to be something immediately distinguishable about the number 1 hero. Bestowing All-Might with a unique, specific drawing style sets him apart from the pack.

What does it mean that All-Might is cartoony even in a cartoon? Why choose to portray him as superficially outrageous and ridiculous? What Kohei Horikoshi intends to do is subvert the glamour and cool traditionally associated with superheroes. He's a throwback ('who's this weird, cheerful old dude?' is the feedback Horikoshi says he got from his manga friends). The extreme cartoonishness reminds the reader that they're seeing a deliberate image, that the projected one-dimensionality isn't the only truth. It's a reflection of how All-Might is  viewed, and who/what he has to be as a hero. All-Might is as much a construction as he is real, a persona who exists via the ideas and expectations of others. He's shiny, larger than life, indefatigable, with the widest of never-wavering, rictus grins. So much of All Might -as with most public figures- is the meaning people ascribe to him, what they perceive him to be. The symbol of peace. This is something All Might is deeply aware of and what he strives to be: 'The reason I smile is to stave off the overwhelming pressure and fear I feel.' Comfort is derived in him visibly not being one of us: he is more. 

Drawing him in this overt, pronounced style is a shorthand for conveying those ideas of a silver-age facsimile, an earnest pastiche, whilst underlining his significance. He may be corny, his costume may be outdated; his hair downright strange, but his sincerity and purpose are what make him. The distinction isn't purely physical but extends to his values.

The other main function of this stylistic device is juxtaposition. It highlights instantly the difference between All-Might's 'normal' form and his hero form. We see how All-Might is able to become something more, but we also see the limitations and confines of it. Superheroes still generally tend to be aspirational even in their regular personas, still muscle-bound, still attractive, just a tad more obscured. With All-Might this isn't the case. He's not good-looking, he's gaunt, his clothes hang off him, his hair is limp and bedraggled. It's only his eyes that hint at depth and gravitas. When in his hero form, All-Might's eyes are never visible under his jutting brow and humongous eyebrows but in regular form, All-Might's eyes are his most impressive feature: burning pinpricks that give an indication of his personality and convictions. Yet there is no escaping the sense of dying lights...

Which brings us, finally, to death. Much of the story, and this presentation, seems geared towards All-Might's death. From the very first time we meet him he's hacking up copious amounts of blood, a by-product of a battle-wound that's only getting worse. And I think this is another facet to Horikoshi's depiction: All-Might is a discrepancy within these pages. He is not an object of permanence. What Horishoki is giving us is a journey from man to godliness -note the connotations of the 'all mighty', his power 'one-for-all'(as much an accumulated spiritual network that provides 'strength') - to transcendence. All-Might will pass on, and the more indelible an impression he leaves, the greater the impact of his loss and the absence of that most vibrant, full of pomp figure. 

*This piece was originally written for my August 1-hour writing challenge on Patreon

Monday, 14 August 2017

Delicious in Dungeon: the things we put in our mouth

I had a lot of fun reading Ryoko Kui's Delicious in Dungeon recently. I've been eyeing it since Yen Press announced they'd be translating it, and then eyeing it some more after it released in May. My interest stemmed from the enthusiasm of friends who'd read it in Japanese (or, um, scanlations) but the concept was what made me dither: in a vast underground dungeon world, a group of adventurers run out of provisions and money. Instead of choosing to go back, they decide to forge ahead by making the creatures and monsters of the dungeon their food -a practice that isn't common and largely viewed with scepticism and disgust.

A quick explanation/justification of dungeon eating:

It's quite a (deliberately) silly idea, and I had qualms about how it'd be approached and executed, or the extent to which the whole book may be rpg game-related (i.e. too heavily referential for me to understand). Having read it, I'm starting to think Ryoko Kui is a genius. She sticks to a tight group of characters to whom she can devote time and flesh out a little: there's Laios, the leader/organiser whose sister the team have ostensibly set out to rescue, but who seems much more interested in eating dungeon critters, to the degree of fetishism... Marcille, the elf, who specialises in casting spells and magic, a reasonable being cast asunder by the sudden eagerness of those around her to start putting any manner of moving things in their mouth. Lastly, there's Chilchuk, a feet-on-the-ground sort of fellow who's an expert in disabling traps and locks, and Senshi, a dwarf the trio meet on the way who happens to be a dungeon cooking pioneer/outcast. The personalities and interactions between the four are what ground the work, with the mesh of the story where the group travel, chat and encounter obstacles handled like any other adventure comic.

The trick to dealing with a silly or ridiculous idea is to treat it as rote. There's got to be an element of conviction. So when it comes to the food, we get step-by step walk-throughs on how to cook a half-chicken half-snake basilisk, a diagram on the anatomy of slime (a bit like jellyfish), instructions on which mandrake limbs should be cooked which way. The general pitch of Delicious in Dungeon is comedic, and it is genuinely funny, but when it comes to the food Ryoko Kui gets serious. You end up believing that a colony of mollusks can grow an outer shell that looks like living armour, and that's quite a mean feat. Extreme/exotic eating has never held any fascination for me, yet there's something about the methodical nature of cooking combined with the creativity of dreamed-up creatures that's rather engrossing.

As you can see from the dragon picture heading this piece, Ryoko Kui can draw *pretty* well. Which always helps. I love when cartoonists can switch between a beautifully, thoroughly textured image to looser, simple line drawings. It's not only visually engrossing for the reader, but it offers more variety, in being able to switch between achieving tone and conveying mood and expression.

Is there a term for when pictures are laid out and labelled like this? I'm a sucker for it. I love detail. I think part of it is to do with packing so much into one space, too.

Not-so-hidden motivations. Laois has a problem...

A real problem. The time to reveal your kinks is not when your friend has just been cut down from the twiny grasps of a man-eating plant.

You know when you're really hungry and slowly everything begins to taken on edible potential; I like how meaty this mushroom looks, and the way its feet have mushroom heads, too! The humour of that mid-air running on these dainty little legs makes it. Yes, Laios does stick an axe into the mushroom in the very next panel. Nothing is going to keep that boy down.

Delicious in Dungeon is such a fun book. I had a blast reading it. Fun and enjoyment can too often get lost as absolutely valid things to glean from art. I'm interested to see where it goes from here, in terms of developing what's quite a specific concept. It can continue in this vein of capturing funky magic monsters and doing breakdowns on how to cook them, but the novelty of that is limited and would get samey quick. There's the overarching story of the dungeon being a mysterious cursed land that needs freeing, which is only very briefly alluded to in this volume, and the rescue of Laios' sister, so there are directions in which it could expand or shift between. Looking forward to book 2, which is out later this month.

*This piece was originally written for my August 1-hour writing challenge on Patreon

Thursday, 18 May 2017

House of Penance: ghosts, guns, and grief (review)

House of Penance by Ian Bertram (artist), Peter J. Tomasi (writer), and Dave Stewart (colourist) [Dark Horse]

It's likely that you're familiar with the legend of the Winchester 'mystery' House in some form: built in 1884 and stretching over 6 acres, 160 rooms and 7 stories, it was constructed under the orders of Sarah Winchester, widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester. The story of its baffling, seemingly haphazard design (Sarah served as the sole architect), and alleged unceasing, around-the-clock construction until her death on September 5, 1922, has provided fertile inspiration for novels, films, and games over the years. Its building was rumoured to be instigated by Sarah's visitation with a medium, who revealed a blood curse on the Winchester fortune, resulting in the restless spirits of her husband, young daughter, and all those who'd died at the hands of a Winchester rifle: spirits who needed to be housed and appeased. House of Penance is a further dramatisation of this story, with a focus on Sarah Winchester's grief and motivations.

The book joins Sarah in 1905, as she has her husband's and daughter's graves relocated from the family plot in Connecticut to the mansion's grounds. Construction is in full swing, and the practices of the place and its people are slowly revealed to the reader via the introduction of new workforce inductee Warren Peck. There is mad poetry in a house that is ever-built; where the sound of hammers is never allowed to quieten to keep Sarah's ghosts at bay, and these elements are amplified to horrific bent. The 'blood curse' is depicted visually as malevolent, snaking tendrils of red that invade and overwhelm, a metaphorical parallel of Sarah's struggles with trauma and depression. Thus the house and its rules/rituals of constant motion and noise are a coping mechanism: means of keeping the swarm of red from engulfing its inhabitants, whether that means tearing up a newly-completed floor in the dead of night, rearranging staircases that lead nowhere, or smashing mirrors through which the spirits attempt crossover entry.

Ian Bertram's art is the reason I picked up this book, and it does the bulk of the heavy lifting in establishing characters, tone, atmosphere, and more. Bertram is often compared to Frank Quitely in style: namely in the way he uses texture (wrinkled dash upon wrinkled dash) and draws figures, but where Quitely's figures are lean and almost spindly, with a creased, leathery quality, Bertram's can go bold through a thicker line or sheer density of texture. Here, that results in a fleshy, almost over-ripe quality- the sense of something waiting to burst out, that feeds the material well, giving new parlance to the ascription of having body. Holding back on the texture has equal effect, cleaner, clearer imagery lending the associated tenor. His panelling choices are diverse: thin, elongated wide panel portray the heat and constrictive climate; small, square boxes breakdown and emphasise the time of a dramatic moment, while switching to large, half-page panels of Sarah in the blackness of her bed, highlight her loneliness. Despite the unobtrusive yellow and orange 'BLAM BLAM' sfx, you never get a sense of sound in the same way. It's a shame, because as this neat ringing bell moment (below) with soundwaves emanating across panels, shows, it could have been well accomplished, and the story certainly provides unique opportunity to do so.

Stewart's colour approach, by contrast, is an afterthought: keep all else blandly conservative so the red can take center-stage.

I enjoyed House of Penance a lot, not least because it led to me reading about the real Sarah Winchester who lived to the age of 82, and from the only existing photograph of her, looks like she knew exactly what kind of reactions she and her house drew. Yet there's no escaping that the story would benefit from being leaner. And much of that feeling is centred around the inclusion of the Warren Peck character. Peck's purpose in the story is two-fold: to function as the reader's stand in (the person we literally follow from the outside in), and to act as a mirror to Sarah and what she is experiencing, via his own haunted psyche. On both fronts, it's difficult not to view him as unnecessary. Why does the reader require a proxy via whom to understand Sarah? Peck's introduction shifts the focus from her as the central character to instead the person we, along with Peck, are watching. We are watching her trauma, her 'madness' accompanied by a male filter, when she could be presented directly to us with nothing in between. We could -should- be siding with her. The intention may be to reinforce, but instead what comes across is the idea that Sarah's pain and feelings are not valid, her actions not understood, unless shared and experienced by a man. It is Peck who sympathises, Peck who calms her, Peck who 'connects' to her, Peck who offers the possibility of romance, and so it is Peck who 'humanises' her. He even saves her from the dangerous designs of her own house (the house which is a stand-in for her mind, lest we forget). It's not only twaddle -considering this is supposed to be Sarah's story- but bogs down the book, dragging out what is essentially a tight tale for longer.

Sarah knows what she is doing, knows how it looks. She is lucid and commanding, and sharply aware of her sister's machinations to get her carted off to the asylum. It is helpful to have a side character for moments of exposition and  Sarah's right-hand man Murcer is apt to the role. What Sarah and her house offer, he explains, to the bloody men who work for her, is a particular self-imposed penance: they accept her judgement and recognise her need for salvation in their own; it's a way to confront their guilt and shame 'for embracing all that a gun has to offer'. And while it lasts, it's enough.